Soften the landing

May 01, 2003 12:00 am

How, you might ask, can Baker County spend more money in 2003/2004 than it did in 2002/2003 but employ fewer people?

Welcome to the plight of cities and counties with flat or negative growth. Property tax rates are maxed out in places like Baker City, and close enough in the county that commissioners aren't likely to ask for more.

In other words: Unless the value of property grows, governments can't hope to keep up with rising health insurance costs and their liabilities to the Public Employment Retirement System.

Baker County government spends more than $1,000 per month to provide health insurance to each of its 70 some union employees. PERS costs will rise $210,000 in the next budget, a 20 percent increase.

Baker County's working solution is to reduce expenses, especially in payroll. The budget board has proposed leaving the equivalent of 7.25 full-time county jobs out of 121 vacant, or laying off the worker.

Understand, Baker County doesn't have to make these cuts. The county projects an ending fund balance of $1.3 million come June 2004.

Spending some of that money now to preserve 7.25 jobs, however, would put the county in a position where the next fiscal year, or the year after that, would contain much deeper cuts.

It's a brave, bold move. And it isn't all commissioners can do to calm county expenses.

Commissioners haven't shied away from talk of asking the unions representing county employees to reconsider a four percent pay increases planned for 2004/05, and to renegotiate the health care package, in order to save more money — and presumably more jobs.

Before commissioners take that step onto the eggshells — a walkout by union employees shows this is a relationship built presently on rhetoric and not shared vision — they should make more than a symbolic gesture towards fiscal conservancy at the county.

Consider: When then-Commission Chair Brian Cole, at the behest of the county budget board, suggested staff cuts for essentially the same reasons, the ensuing public rancor contributed to the filing of a recall petition against the chair.

The fiscal wisdom was lost in the hubbub because the board had assembled a budget that proposed layoffs at the same time it proposed handsome raises for Cole and others.

Fred Warner Jr. hasn't faced the same tribulations as chair because the proposed budget freezes his salary — which already includes the handsome raise Cole suffered for.

Regardless of their dedication, our county commission is all but new on the job. Do they deserve a beginning salary equal to their predecessors' last salary, or some lower base salary?

If the commissioners voluntarily surrender a portion of their pay for the good of the budget, we suspect they'll have more traction with the unions when it comes time to discuss pay increases and insurance costs.